Monday, April 25, 2011

Humanitarian or just another con man?

Greg Mortenson, the philanthropist and author best known for his memoir, Three Cups of Tea, has hit a rocky patch. Last week, 60 minutes took a hard look at some of the details Mortenson offers up in his book and how he’s been spending the money his writing and non-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute, has generated in recent years.

The news isn’t good. It turns out that much of the riveting memoir, detailing his humanitarian work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is fiction. Worse, it appears little of the money raised by his book and non-profit actually makes it to those countries to aid in the building of schools.

A year or so after Three Cups of Tea was published, Mortenson visited the Land of Cotton and I was asked to introduce him at a talk and book-signing event sponsored by the Jewish community center. The book was receiving rave reviews and Mortenson was clearly on his way to becoming a pop culture icon.

I arrived at the venue early. Mortenson was flying in from another event and was running late. When he finally arrived I was initially underwhelmed. Mortenson was wearing khaki pants and a wrinkled dress shirt, lugging about a satchel filled with notes and a change of clothes, and a computer that held the stuff of his talk.

We chatted briefly and he said he needed to find a washroom to clean up a bit before his presentation. He was soft spoken, self-deprecating and, at the time, seemed just a little naïve. There was an “aw shucks” quality about him that appeared genuine, yet slightly at odds with his growing popularity.

All that changed when he began speaking and it became clear that Mortenson was a man on a mission. He spoke with confidence and vigor, tossing out facts and figures that detailed a world in distress, filled with men, women and children doomed to live out their lives in poverty and misery. Yet there was hope and he had a plan.

Mortenson, it turned out, was a born storyteller and quickly captivated the audience with snippets of his early life and accounts of his memorable experiences as he went about turning his dreams into reality. Basically, his hope was to use education to help better the lives of the youngsters in the villages he stumbled across in his travels.

I think the facts and figures that Mortenson detailed and the conditions he found in Pakistan and Afghanistan were accurate. It’s the dangerous and poignant personal twists he added to the telling that’s gotten him into trouble.

At the heart of his book is a heartwarming story of how the simple mountain villagers in Korphe, Pakistan saved his life; his plans to return to the village to build a school to thank the community, and the problems – including being kidnapped by the Taliban – he overcomes to make it all happen. Nice story. But apparently it’s all a lie!

There are also some serious questions being aired about the millions of dollars he’s raised in the last several years, ostensibly to build schools across the region. It seems little money is making it to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortensen, who now travels with a full entourage of agents and aides, has had little to say about the matter. In only five years or so it would seem that his goals have changed and getting rich is now at the top of his list.

I like to think that all he wrote and talked about so passionately in the year or two after the publishing of Three Cups of Tea wasn’t just a con; that he actually believed in helping others and cared about the young people he had met. For an instant, back there in the fading haze of the past, his words seemed true. In the light of day, however, he’s looking like just another snake oil salesman.

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